by Howell Hurst
Mark Hampton’s eyes arced the horizon of Aubrey’s life filled belly. Eight months along now, she was hanging onto his brother Testy’s shoulder as he nursed hamburgers on his backyard charcoal grill. It had been an easy pregnancy with no morning sickness, no complications. Mark could barely contain his excitement at the prospect of their coming first child. Testy’s wife, Myrtle, slipped her hand into Mark’s and followed his gaze to his wife and her husband.
High over Richardson Bay from the backyard of the tiny home Testy and Myrtle had somehow swung with his military pension and her job at Walmart’s, they looked down over Sausalito’s hills and watched the Sunday afternoon fog crawling up toward them off the water. The sun had brightened the day but had been unable to remove the perpetually cool edge of the Pacific Coast’s offshore breeze. Distantly, silver slivers of skyline pierced the cerulean dome of San Francisco Bay.
“Aubrey’s so happy,” Myrtle said.
“Every day she breaks my heart,” Mark answered.
“You are such a brave man to have married her.”
“Bravery had nothing to do with it. She captured me from day one.”
“You’ll be a good father.”
“Aubrey!” Mark called out. “It’s getting cool. Go get a sweater!”
“OK,” Aubrey answered, and skipped toward the back door of the house.
The long black stretch Cadillac emerged over the hill and edged along the tiny street next to the yard. It paused, its occupants shrouded behind smoke gray windows.
“Looks like some Napa wine tourists got lost on their way back to the city,” Mark said. “I’ll help them find their way.”
He ambled leisurely toward the limo, which remained quietly idling.
When finally a back window slid down, Mark thought the bright gold and red bursts spurting from deep inside the Caddy looked like the fireballs of Fourth of July Roman Candles he’d played with as a kid. Except they did not burn out so quickly. They possessed a focused energy that was too sharp for fireworks. The tracers passed over Testy’s shoulder, missing his head by inches. Abruptly adjusting to their intensity, Mark’s vision followed their final path to the back door, where Aubrey had half opened it and was stepping out into the yard. She had pulled her newly found cardigan over her shoulders and was snuggling it around her tummy. A keen sharpening of Mark’s senses electrified him.
The sound of the machine gun followed a split second later, and when it reached Mark’s ears his eyes were focused on Aubrey’s tummy. The shells split the screen door’s cross brace, driving wood and lead into her stomach from left to right, literally cutting her in two. He had no time to understand the look in her eyes, which had had neither time for surprise nor to register the instant annihilation of their unborn child and herself. Her eyes conveyed only the cold gray impersonal moment of death.
Mark ran to the screen door. With his legs strongly braced to the earth, he froze, his vision transfixed upon his wife’s mutilated body. In a terrifyingly rapid wine-red expansion, Aubrey’s blood spread out about her like the inevitable dilation of the iris of an eye when engulfed by ultimate darkness. Mark remained paralyzed. Then he blacked out, collapsing to the earth beside her. Her heart warm blood seeped into his shirtsleeve, soaked it, and began to coagulate.
He was a swarthy, evil-looking fellow with greasy black hair and a flame in his eye like he was losing the battle with his inner demons. The intensity of his gaze intimated lunacy. He looked to be about eighteen, maybe twenty. Watching me closely, he grinned, baring yellow buckteeth and a half-inch gap in front. His movements weren’t controlled like a professional’s. Rather, he twitched and jerked, and it seemed he would explode and do something crazy any moment. Although he was wearing a light blue shirt and a Dior tie, which complemented the blue light coming out of the doorway haloing him in Wang Chu Alley, he shuffled somewhat - like a lost Bedouin out of Lawrence of Arabia who’d only just learned how to put on pants and work the zipper. Shaking in his hand as if he had palsy, his gun appeared. It must have been a .44 Magnum. The barrel was as thick and black as those steel slabs they throw on the streets of the city at night to cover where they’ve been working in the daytime. I remember looking at the size of the hole, thinking it must use space shuttles for bullets. I shouldn’t have been in the alley, but after inching over the Golden Gate Bridge in the Friday night Marin traffic, I was late for my meeting with Testy O’Donnell in Chinatown and, after parking, figured I’d take the shortcut between Fu Lane and Soy Long Street. This was obviously a mistake. “My wallet’s inside my right coat pocket,” I said, reading his mind. “Lift it out, slowly.”
It took me a week to raise my hand to my chest. I didn’t want to pull this guy’s trigger. His gaze also said he might know how to use the cannon. When I could see he figured our eyes were looking directly into each other’s souls, I slowly moved my left hand to the right and slipped it under my jacket. His Adam’s apple bobbed once before I willed my arm to catapult from the elbow, arcing the back of my hand into his throat. Something collapsed under my hand that felt like mildly tough Chicken Tempura. He dropped his gun, and both hands went to his throat, which was gurgling like a clogged sink. So much for his ability to read my soul.
Over his head a water pipe ran across the top of the door frame. I pulled both ends of his Dior over the pipe and tied them together. I bent over, picked up his gun (it was a .44 Magnum) and clobbered his head with it as hard as I could. He let go of his throat and hung from his tie, his knees bent, feet dragging the pavement, his arms limp at his sides. I pushed his gun under my belt in the back, shook my coat free from its grip, and walked down the alley. After ten steps, I turned, returned, and cut his Dior with my Swiss Army knife. He dropped into a grateful heap and started breathing again.
When I got to Wing Chow’s restaurant, Testy accepted my apology for being late and ordered a pot of Ooh Long tea.
“Have any trouble gettin’ here?” he asked.
“Lots of cars coming in from Marin,” I replied. “Otherwise, no problem.”
“Good. How about Won Ton soup?” he said, nodding at Wing Chow who was peeking out the serving window of his kitchen.
We sipped our tea and waited for our Won Ton.
Testy is a San Francisco narcotics cop. We go back a long ways. We were in Army Intelligence in Paris together before and after Vietnam. I guess that makes us battle weary old farts. Whatever. We trust one another. And, to an extent, America’s philosophically sound Democracy, as decapitated from Thomas Jefferson’s original concept as it is. That gives us an edge over the slime we often have to deal with. After Intelligence, he decided on the police because his dad was a cop. I decided to run a boat brokerage because my dad was a Navy guy and I like to sail. Testy graduated to plain clothes awhile back. We share the same mother, which makes us half brothers, I guess. He feels like a whole brother to me.
“Here,” he said, pushing a brown paper bag across the table to me.
“What’s this?” I asked, pulling out a paperback book with dog-eared corners.
“It’s your birthday present. Le Carré’s latest novel. I read it twice. It’s good.”
“Thanks. Can I expense it off my tax return as a professional publication?”
“Fuck the IRS. Do what feels good.”
“Eat your Won Ton.”
We eat in Chinatown because the food’s good and cheap. Testy and I share a common failing: we tend to be honest and, consequently, poor. Frugality is important to us. After Won Ton, we shared a couple of other dishes together: sweet and sour pork and almond chicken. Testy’s fortune cookie said he was going to be a ladies man. Mine said I would take a long journey. Testy’s been faithfully married for twenty-five years. I resist traveling outside the Bay area. What’s the point? It’s all right here. After cookies we talked. “Evelyn Glennie is in town,” Testy said. “Who’s she?” I asked.
“She’s a deaf percussionist.”
“She plays the drums, barefoot.”
“With the symphony. She’ll be at Davies Hall tonight at eight. I’ve got seven dollar tickets for Myrtle and me. We’ll have to talk fast.”
“That’s OK,” I said. “I’m gonna watch TV and eat popcorn.”
I daubed a cookie crumb off my lip with my napkin as Testy wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve.
“Slob,” I said.
“Pansy,” Testy answered.
We grinned together, then Testy stopped. I kept grinning and chewed a hangnail while watching him think about what he wanted to say. When he thinks too hard, Testy exudes an aura that makes him look like he’s dumb. He’s not, and a couple of dozen drug dealers rotting in prison know it for fact.
“I want to talk about something.”
“We going to have a meaningful conversation, for a change?”
“’Something like that.”
“I’m kinda concerned about how the country’s getting to be so good for the rich and how so many other people are still poor. And since I got to enforce the law, I’m a part of the system that makes it that way. It’s bothering me.”
Testy’s been taking night college courses.
“I mean, at my age, do you think I could still change my profession?”
“You need a vacation.”
“Yeah, maybe that’s it.”
“You can’t watch TV tonight,” Testy said, finally.
“Because I’ve got something for you to do.”
Sometimes I do things for Testy that I learned in the Army, which help him out. It brings in a little extra money and keeps life interesting. Sailboat selling can be a pretty slow business. Again, I waited. Testy likes to take his time. He thought some more, as if he wasn’t sure I would like what he was going to say.
“There’s a dope deal going down tonight. Smugglers. We’re buying from them with marked money and I need someone to deliver it and pick up the stuff for us.”
“I need someone who can’t be traced to the department. I’ll pay you $100 and give you a quarter of the reward out on the guy we’re fingering – if we catch him. The reward’s $25,000.
I figured silently for a minute. Math’s not my strong suit. “That’s $6,250.”
“What have I got to do?”
He slid a cheap imitation leather briefcase out from under the table to my side.
“Don’t open this now. It’s got a hundred thousand cash in it. Deliver it to the Alistair Cook Suite, 1204, at the Huntington Hotel tonight, and pick up the stuff and a signed receipt from a Madame Françoise Caron.
“Stay with her awhile, probe for information. See if you can find out what Gandalf means to her.”
“It’s a name keeps popping up.”
“What’s his game?”
“Something else’s happening with the drug profits.”
“What’s the lady look like?” I asked, changing the subject.
“She’s a looker.”
“My turn in the barrel, huh?”
“Why don’t you do the job yourself?”
“It’d blow my cover. She thinks I’m something else.”
“You don’t need to know.”
“What if she falls for me?”
“Marry her and have kids.”
As I chugged up steep California Street later from Chinatown to Nob Hill, and passed my car off to the Huntington’s doorman, even as I entered the sedate foyer of the Hotel and took in the elevator’s tastefully designed interior while rising to Caron’s top floor suite, I was not emotionally prepared for the real woman. She was tall. Her hair was buff brown, long, thick, and straight. She was Eurasian, and her skin was the color of mature Cognac. She was clearly an experienced weight lifter. One who had not pushed it too far. Her arms were bare, resonant, highly toned, rippling with gaunt muscle, but smooth, not knotty. She was wearing a thin, white silk dress. She was barefoot.
Her perfume was Joy. Her legs were architecturally significant. The thighs were the kind which kiss one another when she stood erect. Which she was doing. They were strong and teeming. Their muscles spoke paragraphs. Her knees were glib, and flowed into her calves, which traced the most impossibly graceful arcs down to her ankles, connecting to modestly sized feet: aquiline, tensile, desirable. Her bare toes were sensuous. Her hips were like sculpted Michelangelo marble. Her mouth was open, the lips were moist, beige, her tongue resting slightly behind them, vaguely quivering in her gently nervous smile. The eyes resembled nothing so much as the deep green side eddies of a sparkling mountain brook. She looked up and out through them from her soul and into the innermost, deeply hidden insides of me.
I am a grown man, reasonably intelligent, six foot even, one hundred ninety pounds, a weight lifter also, cynical, and too experienced to expect anything out of life but the daily grind. However, she nudged me off balance. I tried not to let her notice. I suspect I failed. It didn’t make any difference. She was the kind of woman any man worth his Jung, or his Freud, would secretly want to be used by - if that were necessary to have her.I hate to admit it, but my good sense was slightly overcome by my baser instincts. She stood in the doorway of the suite and acknowledged me only briefly before asking if I would like to come in.
Would I? Indeed.
“Yes,” I said, and stepped through the doorway.
“You’re with the hotel?” she asked.
“No,” I answered. “I’m not.”
She looked at me and contemplated.
“Then,” she replied, “may I make you a drink?”
Without waiting, she opened the bar and revealed scotch, bourbon, gin, vodka, Irish Whisky, rum, brandy, rye, and Pernod. A large bucket of ice sat open; a bowl of oranges and lemons sat next to a silver serving affair filled with olives, cherries, and small pearl onions. A jar of bitters existed quietly beside it all, as unassuming and discrete as carefully guarded incest. Pachelbel’s Canon was playing on a CD. Dark red roses filled eight or ten vases positioned throughout the room. There were at least a hundred of them. Their scent prevailed profoundly.
She mixed the Pernod and water I requested, poured herself an icy vodka with Maraschino Cherry juice in it, guided me to the couch, and sat down beside me with her lovely bare feet tucked under her lovely buttocks. She rested her left hand upon my right shoulder and drank her vodka and continued to unnerve me. I continued to endeavor not to let it show.
“Do you like this music?” she asked me.
“Pachelbel? I like Pachelbel.”
“You know this music.”
It was a statement, not a question.
It was a question, not a statement. I hesitated before revealing an intimate piece of myself.
“I am quite fond of classical music. It helps ground me….”
She smiled, quizzically.
“It provides me a base of operations, so to speak, in what I perceive to be a chaotic world.”
“It is a chaotic world,” she answered.
Pachelbel concluded, and we sat in silence for a couple of heartbeats.
“I suppose I should ask who you are,” she said.
“You know who I am.”
“You think me impetuous?”
“I believe I’m foolhardy,” she admitted. “I’ve always liked to take chances. I think it may get me in trouble some day.”
She paused. I waited. It is a technique I learned in intelligence. Others often say things to see how you react. If you don’t react in words, they continue their thought, in other or additional words, and you have gained the edge. They are revealing themselves; you are not. She did not take the bait. Instead, she probed, delicately.
“Do you agree?”
Her eyes were actually hazel, flecked with green.
“I imagine you would like me to,” I replied, sipping my drink.
“My name is Françoise.”
She was clever. She would not push the issue and ask me my name point blank. Her eyes showed no fear. Unlike feminists, she revealed no anger. Her presence was unintimidating, unaggressive. She did not use the masculine tricks against men which female activists do to obtain their goals. She was a real woman. A rarity of her sex. I thought about what I could say to prove I was a rarity of mine.
“You don’t have to tell me your name,” she said, finally. “I know why you’re here, of course. I’ve been expecting you. You’re supposed to deliver something to me, aren’t you?”
“What if I’m not?” “Then we have a far more interesting situation on our hands than I thought. Would you like a refill?”
Without waiting for an answer, she got up and made me a second drink. She made a second for herself too, and sat down again. The air crackled with anticipation. Outside, a streetcar bell clanged. I stood and walked over to the window. Below, on the left, imposingly manifest, was Grace Cathedral, before me the lovely park fronting the hotel, to the right the so called Millionaire’s Club, its smudgy red stone smudgy as ever, farther to the right, the Fairmont Hotel, flags a flying, limousines a flitting, tourists a gaping.
The scent of her Joy ambushed me.
I turned around.
“I like you,” she said.
I knew we had business to attend to, but what was there really to do? She knew she was to receive the money. I knew I was to give it to her and take the drugs. The receipt. Of course, I was to obtain a receipt.
“Do you want a receipt?” she asked.
She penned one on the Huntington note pad and put it in my hand. I pulled out my billfold and slipped it inside. She took my hand and guided me back to the couch.
“The stuff’s under the bed. You can have it when we’re finished.”
I tried to think of something to say. It wouldn’t come out, so I smiled and sipped my drink. Still holding my hand, she leaned over and kissed its palm. Then she guided it toward the top of her dress, which was a V-neck, slit not too low, but open, nonetheless. She guided my fingers up onto her throat until they were firmly in place, then removed her hand and placed it on my thigh. I paused, briefly, cupped my hand over her throat, let it slide down onto her breastbone, then halted. Her breasts were as perfect and soft as a comma. She sighed a luxurious, deepthroated sigh and smiled at me. I didn’t feel a lot like talking now, so I leaned over and kissed her on the mouth. Her lips were baking. She placed a hand behind my neck and drew me toward her. The insides of her mouth came into my mouth. Her hand skimmed up my thigh several inches, then stroked back down to my knee. This lady understood nuance. I breathed deeply - an involuntary reflex. I sat up, leaned back, picked up my drink, sipped it, and said nothing. She put one hand to my mouth, took my drink from me with the other, and set it on the coffee table. She got up and did something with the CD player. Tannhäuser started. She returned. I leaned my head back on the couch and looked up at the ceiling. She dropped her head on my neck and slipped her hand under my shirt and stroked my chest.
“Do you still want to know who I am?” I asked.
“I know who you are,” she said. “You’re the man who’s supposed to be here now.”
What could I say? Nothing intelligent came to mind. I said nothing. Now and then I make a smart move. If ever, I thought, this is the time for one. The smart move I made was to make no move. I left my head on the couch and listened to Wagner and smelled the roses and her Joy. After a bit, she stood, kneeled before the couch, squished herself up between my legs, put her arms around my hips, scrunched up, and looked into my eyes.
Finally, I forced my brain back into gear.
“I’d like to meet your boss,” I said.
“Not now, sweet.”
She curved her lips into a faint smile. Sweet turned into knowledgeable.
“Later is good. I don’t like to waste my time,” she said. “If a man attracts me, I respond. Life is short. I like reality I can touch and smell and see and hear and taste. I like you. I hope you don’t feel like I’m trying to use you.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” She sat down again, leaned against me, and rested her head on my shoulder. I put my arm around her. We sat that way for several minutes. The CD was now playing a Gregorian Chant. She looked up and kissed me again softly on the lips. There was no sex in this kiss. She was just saying hello.
“We’ve not completely finished our business,” she said.
“The money in the briefcase.”
She retrieved the case, locked it in the closet, and then sat back down beside me.
“When are you supposed to pass it along?” I asked.
“Not now. Now business is over. I mean it.”
She turned my torso from her, and placed her hands onto the small of my back. Then, deep into the muscles, she slowly worked her fingers up to my neck.
“That feels good,” I admitted.
“I decided long ago to stop playing with girls. I enjoy men. I find you’re much more agreeable playmates. I like men. I like you. I want you to like me.” She had a way with words. “When are you due to pass the money along?” I repeated.
“Would you like to take a walk, get some fresh air?” she parried, an edge in her voice.
“Sure.” We went out. Bob, the doorman, showed us his white teeth. His uniform gleamed in freshly pressed splendor. We jaywalked over California Street and climbed the stairs to the park. Having just been massaged by a beautiful woman, standing on top of Nob Hill in the most beautiful city in the world, not having a job as an insurance salesman, being reasonably healthy, I looked around me and took stock of the evening. The sky was clear, cloudless, star-packed. It was about sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit, the scent of the salt-laden bay invaded my nostrils with each inhalation, the clean air excited my lungs. I felt vital and immensely lucky. Pride, I should have remembered from my boyhood Sunday School Bible classes, goeth before a great fall.
“Are you as hungry as I?” she asked, squeezing my hand.
“Where shall we go?”
“There’s a delightful little cafe in this block.”
“Marvelous! We won’t have to ride or drive.”
Her laughter was as infectious as influenza.
I nodded without speaking and we walked hand-in-hand the half block to the little Italian café on the corner of Taylor and Clay.
She ordered spaghetti with a cube of unsalted butter, a dish of diced garlic on the side, a large Caesar Salad, bread, and olive oil. We agreed on a bottle of good French Champagne. I forget its name. One of those with the cool silver aluminum neck piece up over the cork. They had real imported Russian caviar, so we got some of that too.
I marveled at her composure. She sat totally silent for what seemed a month, waiting for me to speak. The air in the café lay heavy with implication. Where would this beginning lead? My imagination loped like a runaway pony. Was this the woman I had sought all my life? Was I the man she had sought? The waiter broke into our talk with some elliptical comment. I would have enjoyed mugging him, but restrained myself and answered.
“What?” I said.
“Would you care for a cocktail before your wine?” he repeated.
“Scotch,” she answered., “Single malt, a good one, you choose.”
Him too, a young man with sordid looking eyes, she held in the palm of her hand. He scurried away without asking me what I wanted to drink. I contemplated exactly how I might go about killing him as I returned my eyes to hers. Hers were not sordid. They were mercurial. She scudded her hand across the table and I took it in mine. Through the café window we watched a cable car careen down the hill, its passengers screaming and acting ridiculously silly. A stray dog jumped out of the way. Two longhaired Latinos shuffled down the street, out of place in this Asian- flecked, but mainly white enclave of privilege, huddled at the top of the hills.
“You don’t talk a lot,” she said.
“Sometimes I’m quiet. Sometimes not.”
“When are you quiet?”
“When talking might compromise me.”
“Aren’t we cautious?” “Isn’t cautious wise?” “Perhaps. Not necessarily alluring.”
“I thought alluring was the woman’s role.”
“Times have changed.”
The waiter reappeared with her scotch, setting it obsequiously before her.
“You forgot to ask my friend about his drink,” she said.
He dissolved under her reprimand.
“Oh, I beg your pardon.”
“It’s alright,” I said. “I understand.”
“You would like, sir?”
“Bourbon, over ice.”
“Any special brand?”
“They all work for me.”
“Surely you have a preference.”
“I prefer you choose. Quickly,” I said, a slight edge creeping into my voice.
He caught the hint, and left. Quickly.
“Do you believe in the concept of an enlightened people?” she asked.
I had never been asked this question before, and I had to think for a moment before answering. She was clearly not a woman to whom one gave a shallow answer.
“Would I be equivocating to ask you to define your terms?” I answered. “No,” she responded. “I mean simply a group of people worldwide joined by a common understanding of life which approaches more accurately than others what truth is.”
Beating her at conversation was not going to be easy.
“People,” she continued, “who have discarded the varied beliefs they have been taught and have replaced them with their own.”
“Sophisticated people,” I ventured.
The waiter returned with my drink and asked if we needed anything else.
“No,” she said.
“Thank you, Madame.”
He left us alone again.
“I believe,” I said, “that a good many people who have seen much of life have reached a similar conclusion.”
“That there are as many conclusions to reach as there are people.”
One of her eyebrows lifted, apparently without her guidance, for she smiled.
“When will your friend want to get the money?” I asked.
“When I’m ready to deliver it.”
I stopped sipping my bourbon and swallowed.
“He is busy elsewhere,” she continued. “I am supposed to bring the money to him. Is it important you meet him?”
“It might enhance profits. His, mine, yours.”
“Perhaps it can be arranged.”
The waiter delivered our food and wine with proper deference and disappeared, this time, I hoped, for good. I ate in silence. I did not know what she knew and I did not know how to proceed. She did not speak. I thought about what I should say. She watched me think. I watched her watch me think. It became less important to know how to proceed, for she had removed a shoe and was caressing my ankle with her stocking foot. “Arrange it for me,” I suggested.
“For you, I will arrange it.” “Do you happen to know Gandalf?” “No,” she said, matter of factly. “I just know Jacques. I am supposed to deliver the money to him day after tomorrow in Paris. You could come with me, if you’d like to. You ever been there?”
“He is at a DNA conference at the Sorbonne. DNA is one of his interests. He’s conducting some experiments there.”
“What kind of experiments?”
“He is identifying people from microscopic particles of their bodies.”
“I don’t know.”
I walked her back to the Huntington.
“I need to pick up some clothes,” I said.
“Come back tonight?”
“Count on it.”
Testy OK’d me going to Paris, advanced me fifteen hundred bucks, and one of his men drove me back to the Huntington about two in the morning. The night deskman, whom I have known for several years, showed me the record of Françoise’s calls. She had called Paris just after I left. I wrote down the number and stuck it in my pocket.
“Darling?” she queried from behind the closed door when I knocked. Not many women say darling these days.
“Yes,” I answered. She opened the door and I took her in my arms and drank in her lips. Then I picked her up and carried her to the bed. She had been sleeping in it and it was very warm. We took an Air France flight, arriving at Orly early in the morning. The captain explained that he had had to contend with unusual headwinds in addition to the dateline change. Time and space always confuse me, so I took his word for it. Françoise’s idea was to rent a limousine and a driver. I wanted more control over our transportation, so I told her how much I liked to drive. We compromised. She rented a Rolls Royce and I drove. I had never driven a Rolls before. It drove nicely. We checked into a small three star hotel in St. Germain called the Odeon. Early spring flowers were budding in the window boxes, and ivy crawled down the building’s walls.
She wanted the Georges V, but I insisted on the Left Bank for its quaintness. She absorbed my sensibilities and gave in without a fight. She knew when and how to humor me. I was beyond the putty stage. I was becoming gooey. Paris exuded exquisiteness: the air, the sky, the sun, the French ambiance. St. Germain was ebullient. Pigeons scoured for crumbs, tourists scoured for excitement, Parisians accepted life and thrived. We showered and rested a day before getting down to affairs. In the evening we ate in a small restaurant across from the hotel.
After dinner, we walked down some decrepit steps to an underground jazz club where I was informed that a drink, any drink, would cost 159 Franks: 50 American dollars. Françoise read the look in my eyes and suggested we leave. I agreed. As we ambled through the tiny streets, we did not discuss the barbarity of the price or the absurd attitude of the barman who had observed me as if I were a plumber. I could have cared no less about his opinion of me had he been a goat herder. Being taken financially in any language is a sign of stupidity. I may not be the swiftest guy in the world, but I work hard for my money, and in my book throwing it away promiscuously for pretension’s sake indicates immaturity, plain and simple.
In a nearby restaurant I bought us a bottle of Dom Perignon for just over $90.
“What did you have in mind?” I asked. “How am I to meet Jacques?”
“He’s at the Sorbonne, building a data base of DNA samples from conference participants. He will be working all day. We are to see him tomorrow afternoon or early evening. If you wish, we can visit the conference and become part of the data base.”
“Giving a sample of our bodies, maybe a skin scraping. Then its DNA code will be stored on the Internet. If you ever need to identify yourself without a passport or other ID, you can refer to the data bank. A doctor can resample you for your DNA code and verify who you are in minutes. C’est ça.”
“Why not?” I replied.
When we finished our champagne we walked back to the hotel and watched TV for awhile. Later on, after discussing the state of the world, the origin of the universe, and sharing our opinions of most governments [totally inept and insensitive was our summation] we identified one another’s bodies without benefit of DNA. She was still definitely herself. She seemed satisfied I was still me.
“Shall we take breakfast near the university?” she asked next morning.
We drove to the Place de la Sorbonne, put the Rolls in a garage, and ordered petit dejeuner in a small café called L’Ecritoire. It was one of the tiny glassed in cafés of which hundreds, maybe thousands, exist in Paris. It faced La Place, or plaza, although that seems a grandiose title for the unassuming and taciturn square before us.
“Café au lait et croissants?” she beamed.
“Oui,” I beamed back.
The waiter did not beam. He was one of those tiny, wiry, professional French café waiters who in America would probably have been a bookkeeper’s assistant. He mumbled and shuffled off for our breakfast.
“Charming, no?” she laughed.
No, I thought. Later, with the café au lait warming my insides and bringing life to my body, I absorbed the scene before me. Place de la Sorbonne is roughly one-third to one-half a city block long and 50 to 200 feet wide. It runs perpendicularly off the Boulevard St. Michel. On the far end opposite the Boulevard is the University of Paris, the Sorbonne. A tall statue of August Comte stands near the Boulevard. Actually, his is only a bust over two other full figures. I did not know who August was, but under him the two other figures were a woman with a child and a young man seated, thinking. I assumed Monsieur Comte accomplished something singularly important in his life. I assumed my not knowing what marks me as ignorant. I have my weak points. French history is one of them.
I make up for limited world knowledge with what I consider a relatively keen ability to intuit when something’s missing that I need to find out.
“Why’s your friend so interested in DNA?” I asked.
“It’s a way to identify people without exposing their origins or names.”
“Why’s he want to do that?”
“I can’t talk about it.”
“But you know something.”
“I know something.”
Several old motor scooters leaned against low stone walls. A few scrawny pigeons perched on the handlebars of the scooters. Two kinds of unlit lamps towered over the plaza: those with one bulb, others with two. A one-way driveway circled the part of the plaza nearest the university and seemed to serve mostly as a delivery route for small trucks bringing provisions to the cafés. Besides ours, two other cafés shared the plaza: Café L’Escholier and Le Saint Louis.
The plaza was completed by a tobacco shop, a nice looking hotel named the Select, a woman’s clothing store called Coroner, Papyas, a photocopier shop, The Baker’s Dozen, a pastry shop, and both a large bookstore, which appeared to be the University Press retail outlet, and a tiny one, which seemed to feature obscure intellectual fare for the cognoscenti, those really in the know.
“Ready to go to school?” Françoise asked abruptly.
I nodded happily.
“Then follow that man.”
She pointed to a professorially tweedy type energetically traversing the plaza.
“That is Jacques Carvalle.”
He was my age. There the similarity ended. His hair was long, well trimmed, flowing back over his ears in the smooth manner of the European sophisticate. I’m sure he was one of her enlightened ones. His suit was gray, French, tailored, expensive. He was masculine, in a feminine sort of way, and exuded a cautious self confidence. Discretely, we followed him into the Sorbonne. Our footsteps blended in the corridors with those of many vibrant students variegated by every possible human color and accent.
Immediately upon Carvalle’s entering a lecture hall, the gathered students, and some nurses in crisp white uniforms, organized themselves and sat down: the students on the bleachers, the nurses at a long table before the lecturer’s platform. Carvalle began his lecture. He was well spoken, his voice tempered and even. He smiled easily and gestured freely with Gallic élan. He was the kind of man most women dream of. Françoise paid him little attention. She watched him talk, but put her hand in my pants pocket, to keep it warm I guess. It certainly kept me warm. Some women, I prided myself, have more acutely selective taste than others.
Later, one of the nurses, a plain woman in a white jacket, took a sample of skin from inside my mouth and gave me a card with a bar code on it, an address, a fax and phone number, and my name under a color Polaroid she personally took of me. I was eternally identified. It was easier than having my tonsils removed and made me hungry. Carvalle, surrounded by admiring students, fielded their questions as Françoise and I returned to the Café L’Ecritoire for lunch.
She ordered Pave au Poivres, I got Cote d’Agneau. We shared a bottle of Moulin de Belot. She ate a Tarte Alsacienne and I, a Gateau au Chocolat American. We had an espresso each. I felt full and sleepy. We walked down St. Michel to the Seine and spent the rest of the day outside in the warm sunshine, waking me up with fresh air and her fresh conversation.
At Shakespeare & Company, the English language bookstore of my freshman college literature past, we browsed through a broad array of ancient and modern writers. Books, we remembered, were how we used to learn before television and the Internet became our dominant media for literature, and police detectives our prevalent literary heroes. Obviously, we were not up to date. Several other couples in the store appeared reasonably obsolete, too. If not hip, we were happy. Today was our temp perdu, our lost times, our good old days, and we consumed them to the limit. Her perfume filled my nostrils with pleasure, as did her touch, her smile, her trembling ideas of life. My jadedness receded and something approximating contentment approached.
“I believe the moment brings us our destinies,” she explained. “The secret of life is to accept the direction it brings us, to follow it to its eventual conclusion. It will lead you if you will follow.”
I followed her into the Luxembourg Gardens.
“When is our destiny going to lead us to Carvalle?” I asked.
“It is arriving, ” she said. “Be patient.”
“See, you’re becoming an existentialist,” she said.
“You’re practically enlightened,” she laughed.
We walked past the sailboat pond where a little girl sailed her boat with her father. A strong young Frenchwoman in running shorts jogged past us, cutting through the warming Spring air as if she were in the tropics. She was tough looking in the sense of possessing endurance, but her lean, taut face stretched over keen, sharply-defined features and her brilliant teeth flashed in the sun. As she passed us, she shot a quick glance into my eyes and my heart faltered.
There was no feminist anger in her eyes. Like Françoise, she had no ax to grind. She appeared a woman without dependence on men, but also without dependence on anger toward men. Françoise noticed her glance and – the only time I ever saw it – gently bristled with what I took for mild jealousy. Not a word passed her lips, but generations of breeding could not hide her concern. In an instant it was gone.
“Wait here, or in the café,” she said, consulting her watch. “I will find André and bring him to you.”
She walked off toward the Sorbonne, dropping me at L’Ecritoire. I entered and ordered a cognac and espresso. An hour later, Françoise had not returned, so I walked the thirty feet to the Sorbonne entrance and, inside, inquired of a guard about Monsieur Carvalle. He asked me to wait a moment, and walked away. I leaned on the guardrail of his mobile office, scouring the wall for amusement. Someone tapped me on the shoulder.
I turned to discover a broad-shouldered, slightly pudgy man with steely eyes which were boring into mine.
“Please, to come with me,” he said, rather than asked, taking my arm.
I did not argue, but followed him willingly. It seemed he was trying to guide me, not harm me. I trusted him even as he led me into the dark stairway leading to the basement. Under this famous institution of learning I now learned something new, something I would have preferred never to have learned. I learned the immediacy and accuracy of Carvalle’s DNA identification technique. In the dark of the university’s basement lay stretched out on the floor two dark green canvas tarpaulins.
“Monsieur Carvalle,” my host said, lifting one of the tarps, under which, upon another tarp lying on the floor, spread out like a high school science exhibit, were the blackened, charred remains of what had been human bones. A skull as dead as the one in Hamlet, yet deader, since it was also charred as black as the cinders of Hell itself, confronted me. Its skeleton eyes inspected mine.
“It is Monsieur Carvalle,” he assured me.
“Who is under the other tarp?” I asked, never once suspecting the answer.
He lifted the second tarp. It too revealed charred bones and a skull burnt black as night.
“His accomplice, a certain Madame Caron.”
I grew dizzy. My eyes blurred. Pain bolted through my head. I tried to stop my legs from crumbling under me, but failed. I kept thinking of the first night with her in the Huntington. When I came to, police Captain Pierre Broullard finally introduced himself.
“Monsieur is very sensitive,” he said, “for an experienced man.”
“I knew the lady,” I stuttered.
“Oui, monsieur. I know.”
“Let’s talk,” I said, starting to sit up.
A nurse pushed me back on the floor. She was big and strong. She did not smile at me. I did not protest, but gave in. Then she smiled and patted my shoulder. Broullard explained that he was Testy’s French counterpart. He had been watching Carvalle from Paris while Testy fingered him from San Francisco. Together, they had planned this pinch. But they had expected to get Carvalle and Caron alive.
“Complicated drug scheme, huh?” I said.
“Partially,” he answered.
“Yes, the real commodity is not drugs. It is human beings.”
“Indeed, monsieur. Jacques Carvalle and Françoise Caron were not primarily drug smugglers. That was only a sideline. Their real business is – was – smuggling people.”
“Jacques and Françoise provided people to someone, perhaps the Mafia. They smuggled the people out of Eastern European and Mid Eastern nations into capitalist countries and those leaning toward capitalism.”
“Money, monsieur, for starters.”
“Of course. But why were they smuggled?”
“The people smuggled had jobs to do.”
“Yes. It is big business today to smuggle people from crumbled Eastern European nations and the oil rich Arab countries to Western and Asian countries. Much money is involved. Billions of dollars. The people are idealistically motivated to agree to all kinds of work.”
“Prostitutes, pimps, drug runners, other things.”
“But what happened to Carvalle and Caron?”
“They were cheating their clients,” Broullard explained. “They cheated your friend, O’Donnell, too. He will find the drugs exchanged for the money in San Francisco were bogus. They are relatively benign chemicals which look and taste like heroin.”
What could I say? I’d been taken. And so had Testy. They say a salesman is the easiest person to sell something to. I guess con men, cops, and spies are the easiest conned and deceived, too. You never figure someone else is as well versed in deception as yourself. Not simple criminals, at least. Well, now I knew. A new generation of criminals was ascending the thug hierarchy and I was going to have to get my act back together if I stayed in this thing to the end. More than that. Since I’d been a long time lonely and wanted a lady, now I was doing my night job in a half-ass way. I’d let myself become enamored of a lady I had no business messing around with. I’d let my professional life become personal. It pissed me off. What a dope I had been.
“Here in Europe,” Broullard droned on, “your friend, Caron, and her colleague, Carvalle, recruited and organized members to help them smuggle people whom they delivered to their client’s safe houses. Of course, they took a commission for the transfer. But, they got greedy and tried to take all the funds. Over $3 million.”
“So their clients killed them.”
“Someone did.” “How are you certain it is them?”
Broullard produced a small box from his pocket and slid back the lid. Inside were two entire little fingers, the end of each blackened with congealed blood where it had been severed from the hand. One was a man’s. The other, a woman’s. One could have been Françoise’s: the polish was right, and the discolored shape seemed almost familiar.
“Whoever exterminated them left us these fingers when they put the bodies in the furnace.”
He pointed to the oven in the far end of the basement. I hadn’t even noticed it until now.
“And a note. We checked the DNA of the fingers with the data base at the conference; it seemed an obvious thing to do. There is no doubt. It is they.”
I wished Broullard’s English were less academic. I’d rather have heard that it was “them” than “they.” Just the academically invalid “them” replacing the technically correct “they” would have made it all more human and acceptable. But his accuracy that it was, indeed, “they,” one of them the lady I had most recently slept with, upset my stomach.
“What did the note say?” I asked.
“Read it yourself,” he said, and handed me a piece of wrinkled paper.
“Recycling by Gandalf.”
“What is that about?”
“I don’t know,” Broullard said.
He took me to his office and we spent half a day trying to see if there was anything else we could find out about the deaths. There wasn’t. In the end, he told me to go home and he’d call if anything new came up. Yes, I agreed, I guess that’s all we can do. He pinned down a flight back to San Francisco for me, and I drove the Rolls back to Orly. Caron had secured the car with a 5,000 Francs cash deposit. The bill was for 3,770 Francs. I pocketed the 1,230 Francs refund, not bothering to exchange them for dollars. A perk of the trade. I figured I might return to Paris again, sometime. Next morning I was back home, talking with Testy in his office on Bryant Street. It was misty, and the city’s foghorns were in marvelous voice.
“Sorry about how things turned out,” Testy said.
“Better luck next time.”
He gave me a check for my services. The reward was, he told me, for dead or alive. This was not really very gratifying, but I needed the money, so – despite my personal discomfort with the idea - I pocketed it. I guess we all have to sell out to one degree or another. This was my degree. The mortgage had to be paid, even if over Françoise’s barbecued body. I envisioned how her skin had looked. It had not been motley textured like burnt charcoal. It had been smooth and olive-colored, alive to the touch, truly sweet to the taste. So long, I thought.
“So long,” Testy said.
On the way out, I saw the desert rat I had dealt with in Wang Chu Alley a few days before. He was being booked at the front desk. I turned to Testy, who was accompanying me to the door. “Ask why he’s being booked.” Testy spent a moment with the booking sergeant, then returned.
“Found some explosives in his apartment. Plus drugs,” he said.
“I should have left the bastard hanging by the pipe,” I mumbled.
At the door, we spent one of those brief moments where we wordlessly assessed our lives in general and our relationship to one another in particular. The salty sea air of the Bay hung about us like an unsung aria. Testy looked at me, and I thought he was going to say he was sorry again about Françoise getting killed, so I started to interrupt, but something in his eye was different so I kept still. The stillness seemed to let him open up.
“Myrtle’s filing for a divorce. Says she needs her space. Can you believe that? A quarter century we been together, and now she needs space.”
I didn’t know what to say. I mulled it over. Why would Myrtle…? When Testy could see I was almost about to say something, he stopped me.
“Don’t say a fuckin’ thing. Ain’t nothin’ needs being said.”
I nodded my head. I knew what he meant. I turned away, and walked down Powell Street to the garage where my car sat with a $150 accumulated ticket. After I paid it off, I was left with a net from my work of about $6,100, not counting my Rolls refund bonus, which I sure as hell didn’t intend to declare to the IRS. After taxes, it would be about $4,500, if I was lucky. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought of Françoise. Her Joy still clung to my clothes. Her taste still inhabited my mouth. I remembered the touch of her hand, the pliancy of her tongue, the scent of her hair. I looked out over the Bay and the glistening lights of San Francisco blurred through the fog and the thin film of tears upon my eyes. What a damned fool I was having started to fall for this dame. Same old, same old story of my life. A hot ticket item when it comes to my work, a sap when it comes to women. She cared for me, I imagined. I think she really cared for me.
What I did not imagine, as the Pacific Ocean flowed into the Bay under me, and the vision of her burnt bones seared the insides of my eyes, was that in a café on the West Indies island of Martinique, a couple sat drinking Champagne, their hands entwined.
“We’ve done well,” the man said.
“The $100,000 I got in San Francisco.”
“The $3 million we picked up in France.”
“Yes, and the expense was not really too high,” she said.
“Considering the net, no, not too high.”
“Too bad we have to share.”
“Gandalf made it possible.”
She leaned over and cupped her hand around his neck. He leaned into her and they kissed, not even noticing the waiter as he refilled their glasses.
“An attractive couple,” the busboy remarked to the waiter after he had returned to the kitchen and they were drinking espresso together.
“But,” the waiter answered, “did you not notice they each have bandages on one hand over what appears to be missing little fingers?”
“Love can overcome all obstacles, eh?”